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Dealership fighting back against closures

Fred Beans taught his daughter Beth to use a sledgehammer when she was 12. They busted down a wall together 31 years ago in their Doylestown new-car showroom.

Fred Beans taught his daughter Beth to use a sledgehammer when she was 12. They busted down a wall together 31 years ago in their Doylestown new-car showroom.

Today, father and daughter brushed up on their swing and took aim at Washington and taxpayers, whose bailout billions for U.S. automakers were enabling bankruptcy plans that Beans said were putting good local citizens out of business.

Beans, among 1,300 General Motors Corp. dealers with franchises the automaker recently said it wanted to eliminate, has launched a public relations and government-lobbying campaign against further closures, including an impassioned, full-page ad in today's Inquirer.

"I believe right is right and wrong is wrong, and I'll be damned if the federal government gave GM billions of dollars, and gave executives millions of dollars to go away, to put me out of business in Doylestown," said Beans, 70, who last month learned his GM dealership in Limerick, Montgomery County, would be phased out by 2011 under GM's government-backed bankruptcy plan.

"I don't think so," he said.

In his advertisement, which also ran in a Capitol Hill publication widely read in Washington, Beans wrote: "I ask for your help to ensure that GM's bankruptcy does not cost our families their livelihood."

His network of 22 dealerships, with headquarters in Doylestown, employs 1,500 people across Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Other dealers on GM's closure list are enduring in anonymity. The company has not made public the names to be phased out.

Beans has appealed the decision. But as the reality has sunk in of the May 16th letter from GM, father and daughter have gone from nearly giving up to instead gearing up for a scrappy fight.

Father and daughter have hired a Washington lobbyist, talked with federal lawmakers and rallied other dealers to push back against closures that have come down en masse as part of the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler L.L.C.

Pennsylvania is expected to be one of the hardest-hit states because of its high concentration of dealerships selling vehicles from the embattled Big Three automakers - Chrysler, GM and Ford Motor Co.

Beans and a small group of fellow local dealers met face-to-face Saturday in the Doylestown office of U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.).

"It was clear to me that they need help, and that they haven't been given a fair deal, and haven't been allowed to state their case for why they should stay in business," Murphy said in an interview today from the Capitol.

Murphy said manufacturers have been "reckless in the way they've been closing small businesses such as Fred Beans dealership in Limerick." He said the closures were having "terrible effects" on the local economy and that he was pushing his colleagues to help give dealers a chance to stay open.

At Murphy's urging, the Beans team spent the last few days assembling testimonials from employees. Copies of 500 letters written by Beans employees were sent to Murphy, U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.) and U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey Jr., both Pennsylvania Democrats, the Beans folks said.

One employee praised the Beans family for loaning him money to buy a house; another was thankful for the scheduling flexibility that allowed her to go to college while working for Beans; another talked about how she was the sole provider for her family.

"I am urging you to stop this needless destruction of so many lives," wrote one.

For now, the goal is to advance legislation introduced this week in the U.S. House of Representatives that seeks to restore franchise protections to dealers.

Even though Beans has a sprawling network of dealerships beyond the one singled out by GM, he said that being forced to close his Buick Pontiac GMC site in Limerick could bankrupt the entire business, much of which is built on selling cars produced by the struggling Detroit Big Three, Beans said.

There is a $3.5 million mortgage on that Limerick property, in the middle of an automall. Beans built it, and Beans wants to keep it open until he decides to shut it down, if ever. It's his, after all, he said.

"We built the buildings, we bought the signs, we bought the cars," said Beth Beans Gilbert, 43, vice president of the business, describing how dealerships are the product of local capital investment. "If we don't have a franchise, the buildings are no good."

The Beans' full-page ad appeared the day after 11 local Chrysler dealers went dark because of the company's dissolution of 789 franchise agreements nationwide as part of its own, earlier, bankruptcy reorganization backed by the Obama administration.

Those Chrysler dealers, some of whom had been in business for three generations, were the first to vanish through Bankruptcy Court orders that voided their rights under state franchise laws.

Given the Obama administration's support of both bankruptcy plans, the political prospects of any bill reversing the dealer closures remained unclear.

"If this bill doesn't pass, it's the disintegration of the franchise laws and the American dream and going into business for yourself," said Beth Beans Gilbert, who has worked furiously to orchestrate the rescue lobbying effort with her father.

"I've paid taxes all my life, and I was in the military," said her father. "I never thought the federal government would give $50 billion to General Motors and Chrysler to put me out of business."

Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or